10/31/2016 03:49 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Why Aren't Any of the Candidates Talking About Poverty and the Poor?

Probably the longest and most divisive presidential election campaign in modern U.S. history is finally coming to a close. On November 8th, voters across America will cast a vote that will have generational consequences determining the course of our nation and world for decades to come.

One of the most striking, if severely underreported, aspects of this long election season has been the near total absence of meaningful discussion about America's persistent structural poverty and the role of government to address it. Much more focus has been directed to the question of whether and, if so, to what extent the wealthy should be paying more taxes to support increasingly struggling middle and working-class families.

These concerns are real and valid, but continuing to overlook the needs of severely poor Americans and families is something we can ill afford. Today's poverty rate is nearly 14 percent of our population, the very same level as in 1992, showing that, over decades now, we have made precious little progress in this area as a nation. Indeed, whole pockets of both inner-city and rural areas of our nation are being permanently left behind. By not addressing the issues, we are risking so much that is vital to the future of our democracy, our economy, and our standing in the world.

In the absence of meaningful progress to lift up the poor in real and lasting ways, we are risking losing public confidence in our very system of government among a wide swath of our populace. We are also imposing a growing structural drag on our economy by limiting the level of spending power needed to fuel a more fully shared prosperity for all Americans. Finally, we are increasingly signaling to observers around the world that, despite our egalitarian claims, our systems of governance and economy are exclusively in service to the wealthy and the privileged, rather than society's most needy and vulnerable populations.

There is a strong case to be made that a politics devoid of concern for society's least privileged is antithetical to the very core of our national values and purposes. America, with all of its faults and contradictions, has always nevertheless been a beacon of hope for people across the planet precisely for its commitment to opportunity and inclusion for all.

Leading political figures of our modern history have all recognized the essential role of government to protect and advance the interests of our poorest neighbors and communities. Indeed, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chávez all met early deaths fighting for the rights of poor and disenfranchised people to gain basic political and economic rights.

In his influential book, A Theory of Justice, the late great American political philosopher John Rawls argued that the ultimate moral standing of any society is the extent to which it thinks and acts first with the interests of its most vulnerable members. According to Rawls, no policy or decision to privilege the wealthy and powerful is morally justifiable without efforts first to attend to the voices and needs of the poor and the powerless.

As Rawls saw it, where there is no consideration first for poor and marginalized people in the public decision making of our times, there can be no justice. And as we know more and more in our own time and circumstance, given our evolution from the Rodney King police beating of the early 1990s to the recent incidents of excessive police force in communities of color, where there is no justice, there can be no peace.

Whoever prevails in the coming election, it is vital for caring and compassionate Americans to join in common cause to hold our elected and appointed leaders accountable to the unmet needs of poor people. Our very fate as a nation of integrity and common cause hangs in the balance.